Over all these years since 1975 when I reached Moscow on my first assignment in the former USSR, I was privileged to watch from the sidelines many a Russian-American high level exchange. The learning curve will never end, but in the run-up to the exchanges, especially summit level meetings, what often came to mind was a cute little “Biblical” story about Noah and the cats.
While travelling in the Arc, Noah could hear that the pair of cats kept snarling and he could understand their tension after barely escaping from the deluge of the Great Flood. So, finally when the waters receeded and the dry land appeared and Noah and the animals left the the Arc to repopulate the Earth, he was stunned to see half a dozen kittens trooping out. Thereupon, the male cat turned to Noah and taunted him, “You thought we were fighting?”
Thus, the decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to drop out of the G8 at Camp David became a topic of animated discussion, the consensus view being that the Russian leader snubbed his American counterpart Barack Obama. When Obama decided soon after to skip the APEC summit in Vladivostock, it seemed a “tit-for-tat”.
Of course, I remembered Noah’s Arc. But it was easy to judge why this sound of snarling was misleading. To judge that Putin was snubbing Obama, there needed to be some empirical evidence, which was lacking. On the other hand, just before his inauguration as president, the US national security advisor Tom Donillon was deputed to call on him — Putin received him at his residence in Moscow suburbs — and hand over a letter from Obama proposing a new phase of US-Russia cooperation.
More important, Putin is just embarking on what is arguably going to be the most daunting phase of his entire political life — navigating simultaneously on twin tracks the transition of the archaic Russian political system and the innovation of the stagnant economy, while also keeping the inevitable social turbulence within a reasonable threshold. In my judgment, Putin has a clear sense of priority as regards his legacy in Russia’s modern history — and quixotically tilting at the windmills in the West is the last thing on his mind.
Equally, Obama, if he wins a second term, can be trusted to give his best shot at addressing the US-Russia reset more imaginatively than in his first term when he was under constraints of various kinds. Obama also has his priorities cut out for him, and he senses Russia could be a valuable ally in a difficult world; at any rate any lingering “enemy” image of Russia amongst cold warriors in the US is a problem for them alone to come to terms with.
The fundamental contradiction is over the US missile defence system. It isn’t going to be easy to reconcile. Indeed, Putin will assert Russia’s status and role as a great power, and the global strategic balance is crucial to this matrix. On the other hand, the US has never come this close to making a serious bid for nuclear superiority. Statesmanship of the highest order is needed to reconcile the US agenda with Russian aspirations. Much is unclear, starting with the prime-hour question as to Obama’s prospects of securing a second term.
Thus, on balance, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev appears to have fulfilled his mission to Camp David. He put to use his warm equations with Obama to ensure that the US-Russia reset remains on track. The picture of the two statesmen sitting on a bench in a park in the Camp David retreat and having an intense conversation conveys a lot. Medvedev apparently handed over to Obama a letter from Putin outlining “Russia’s priorities in the foreign policy course.” This looks like a cat-fight, isn’t it?
– May 20, 2012